2010 cases: Ft. Hood shootings

Shannon Jacobson

1) Introduction to the Case

On November 5, 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major serving as a psychiatrist, walked into the Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Hood, where he “took a seat at an empty table, bowed his head for several seconds, and then stood up and opened fire” (Baker, and Krauss). Although the incident only lasted about ten minutes, it left 13 people dead, including 12 soldiers and one civilian. Additionally, 30 people were wounded. As soon as the “killing spree” (Carr) began, the base went into lock-down mode, making it nearly impossible for people or information to get in or out. Therefore, mainstream media relied heavily on the accounts of citizen journalists, particularly Twitter users, to let them know what was going on inside Fort Hood. This situation was further complicated by the fact that the day prior to the shootings Twitter had launched a new feature called Twitter Lists.

Twitter Lists allow users to sort the people they follow into groups, so during the shooting, news organizations such as The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, and The Washington Post quickly compiled lists of breaking news at Fort Hood, which included the tweets of “local news outlets, military accounts, and local citizens” (Kanalley). Unfortunately, the Twitter lists and other tweets that were picked up by numerous media outlets were not always accurate or appropriate. For instance, soldier Tearah Moore, who used Twitter to provide “minute-by-minute reports from inside the hospital where the wounded were being taken for treatment” (Carr), encouraged her friends to “pass her phone number to the press so she could tell them the truth” (Carr). However, what she reported was anything but the truth. For instance, she tweeted that, “He [Major Hasan] shouldn’t have died. He should be in the worst suffering of his life. It’s too fair for him to just die. Bastard!” (Riley). Although Major Hasan was shot a total of four times, he was not killed. Moore also tweeted saying that the officer who shot him was killed, “but both reports were erroneous” (McFadden). Furthermore, Moore claimed that some “guys” (Riley) shot between 19 and 25 people. This report, which spurred rumors of a second and third shooter, turned out to be inaccurate as well. In addition, an anonymous blogger claiming to be at Fort Hood posted, “There is no chaos here that is detectible, everything is very orderly” (Journalism.org), which gave people following the news a false sense of security. In addition to all the false information being spread around, another problem involved the invasion of privacy of those involved in the shooting. While some Twitter users, such as one named “RicoRossi” (Cohen) said they did not “want 2 b 2 graphic” (Cohen) and self-censored their tweets, Moore, lacking in sensitivity for the victims and their families, took the opposite approach. She went so far as to post pictures of wounded victims with crass captions that were not only inconsiderate, but also intruded on the privacy of those injured and their loved ones. By far the worst was a picture of “a wounded soldier arriving at the hospital on a gurney” (Carr) with the caption, “The poor guy that got shot in the balls” (Carr).

Journalist Paul Carr condemned Moore, saying that “citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands of people with family at the base would have been freaking out already…” (Carr). However, many people defended Moore. For example, reporter Suw Charman – Anderson asks if “in the middle of a shooting…is it really any wonder that your average eye witness actually isn’t all that well informed about the bigger picture?” (Charman-Anderson). She goes on to say that it is “unfair” to expect them to check facts. The new Twitter lists were also a source of controversy. Senior Software Architect Jacob Harris argued that Twitter lists only complicated the problem because it was hard to “identify valuable signal among the noise…and try to figure out the primary witnesses” (Kanalley). Also, many Twitter lists contained contradicting information. For example, the Austin American Statesman reported via its Twitter list, “ ‘Officials say…that two shooters are believed to be involved’. However, another tweet said, ‘Texas Gov. Rick Perry says there were three shooters, one was killed, two are in custody,” (Journalism.org).

The professional issues raised in the Fort Hood case are similar to those discussed in the Columbine case. For example, during the Columbine school shooting, newsrooms had to decide if providing full, accurate coverage, including kids running from the school, live interviews with devastated kids, and dead bodies being dragged from the school, was overridden by the fact that the images may cause more harm than good. For the most part, the news stations tried to make sure that what they showed was “compatible with community values” (Rosenstiel, and Mitchell). In the Fort Hood case, the same issue of providing news vs. decreasing harm was relevant. However in this case, there was no specific community whose values governed what was appropriate and inappropriate to say or show. Rather, the audience was over 360 million Internet users who have access to Twitter (Internet Usage Statistics).  Therefore, Moore posted things graphic things like, “They just brought a CART full of boxes w/transplant parts in them. Not good not good” (Riley) without a second thought. She also uploaded graphic pictures that may have compromised the privacy of victims and their families. Analysis of these two cases shows that due to technology, professional journalists are no longer the only ones struggling with the issue of what is appropriate to publish and what is infringing on the privacy of others. Citizen journalists increasingly have to make decisions without the “instinct and judgment honed by years in the profession” (Rosenstiel, and Mitchell).

Broader Research

In order to appreciate the professional issues that are raised by this case, one must first understand what citizen journalism is, how it arose, and its effects on the mainstream media.

John Kelly, a researcher at the University of Oxford, defines citizen journalism “as non-journalists doing the things that only journalists used to do: witnessing, reporting, capturing, writing, disseminating” (Kelly 1). He also attributes the rise of citizen journalism to three primary factors. The most obvious of these, of course, is technology, which finally allowed people to report “facts they had uncovered or opinions they held” (Kelly 5) without having to have a lot of money. The cost of digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones, blogs, and search engines is next to nothing.  Whereas before, the only people who could spread information were those wealthy enough to afford “printing presses, television transmitters, and radio towers” (Kelly 5). Furthermore, the Internet allows information to be spread not only cheaper, but also faster than any new source ever before. People no longer had to wait for their morning paper or their evening television broadcast to know what was going on in the world around them.

Another factor that led to the rise of citizen journalism, according to Kelly, is the fact that citizens “have been treated to a series of well-publicized journalistic mis-steps” (Kelly 7). For example, in 2003 The New York Times published a report admitting that Jayson Blair, a reporter, had “committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events” (Barry, et al.). Blair “fabricated comments…concocted scenes…[and] lifted material from other newspapers and wire services” (Barry, et al.). This incident, along with several others, led to a growing belief that the mainstream media was not as trustworthy as previously believed.

The last factor that Kelly points to in the rise of citizen journalism is the fact that people began to feel that the “mainstream media’s control of information – the stories it chose to cover, the way it chose to cover the, the relative weight it gave to different spokespeople or groups – was unnecessarily restrictive” (Kelly 8). Just as historical monopolies such as Standard Oil and U.S. Steel got too big for their own good, Kelly argues that mainstream media, too, has become too powerful and “lost touch with its customers” (Kelly 8). Kelly quotes an editor at CNET.com who wrote, “Big media has been laying down the rules for a long time, and there’s no doubt they’ve abused their power, lost our respect, and alienated an increasingly tech-savvy generation” (Kelly 8). However, Kelly concedes that journalism has not necessarily changed much over the years, it is simply the fact that “readers are more demanding” (Kelly 9) due to the fact that technology has made it easier to compare “what they see in the mainstream media with what they encounter outside the media” (Kelly 9).

After realizing how citizen journalism came to be, it is important to ask what qualifies as citizen journalism? J.D. Lasica, senior editor at the Online Journalism Review, breaks citizen, or participatory, journalism down into several categories. One such category is “audience participation at mainstream news outlets” (Lasica). This includes comments and discussion forums on mainstream media’s websites, photos or articles submitted by citizens, and reader reviews of books, movies, restaurants, etc. (Lasica).

The next category that Lasica points out is “independent news and information web sites” (Lasica). This group mostly consists of blogs aimed at specific topics such as community news, politics, technology, cooking, pets, etc. (Lasica). These publications are written by “gifted amateurs or independent writers” (Lasica) as opposed to paid staff.

Another category, and arguably the most important, is “collaborative and contributory media sites”, which combine “editorial content…appropriate for a newspaper or magazine” (Lasica) with “the interface of weblogs and discussion boards” (Lasica). I would argue that Twitter belongs in this category because although the format is not what you would typically expect of a news source, it is quickly emerging as the “fastest breaking news service in the world” (Clayton). Any user with a cell phone or camera can “become a global reporting unit” (Clayton), and many mainstream media outlets “now monitor Twitter as closely they would the Associated Press and other reputable outlets” (Clayton). For instance, Twitter was one of the primary news sources in events like the Mumbai attacks and the crashing of an airplane into the Hudson River (Clayton). In the words of blogger Steve Clayton, Twitter is “citizen journalism with a turbo charger, Viagra and steroids” (Clayton).

In short, citizen journalism “can exist within the framework of a mainstream media outlet and it can exist on its own” (Kelly 17), varying in complexity from a “self-produced video uploaded to YouTube…[to] a comment posted at the end of an online newspaper story” (Kelly 18). But how does this citizen journalism affect the mainstream media? Kelly points out that there are both pros and cons. Benefits include the fact that “stories can be more accurate and nuanced” (Kelly 26) because citizen journalists have no deadlines and often know more about issues than reporters do. Also, citizen journalists can cover stories that have been overlooked by the mainstream media or “resuscitate stories the mainstream media might have let die” (Kelly 27).  However, many worry that citizen journalism is “garbage”, and even citizen journalism within the mainstream media, such as comments on mainstream media’s websites may “delegitimize the legacy…created by professional journalists” (Kelly 30). Furthermore, citizen’s contributions have “the potential to skew the overall perception of a story” (Kelly 31) because the identities and motivations of contributors are unknown. Kelly argues that if the mainstream media opts to use content generated by citizen journalists, it is up to them to edit the content, which will often require spending extra time and money.

Key Questions

This case raises a number of professional issues:

1) Especially in tragic cases like Fort Hood, should citizen journalists, such as Tearah Moore, be held accountable for their claims since they are being spread to a vast audience, or is it excusable for them to report falsehoods simply because they are not professional journalists?

2) In instances where the mainstream media relies on citizen journalists, it is up to these professional news organizations to edit the work of their untrained counterparts, or is it acceptable for them to simply re-publish the accounts of eyewitnesses regardless of truth or verification?

3) What are the consequences for not telling the truth or compromising someone’s privacy, and who should take the blame: the citizen journalists or the mainstream media that re-published their false information? For instance, is the mainstream media responsible for potentially libelous comments that are posted on their website or the citizen that posted them?

4) What type of material is appropriate for citizen journalists to publish? For instance, was Tearah Moore justified in publishing graphic pictures with crude captions? Would it have been okay for the mainstream media to publish the same thing, or are they held to different standards than citizen journalists? In short, since there is no institution to monitor citizen journalism, is one’s “inherently subjective” (Garber) and “notoriously diverse” (Garber) conscience enough to guide them in deciding what is fit and unfit to publish?

5) How is the media’s role as a gatekeeper applied in a society with “fewer and fewer fences?” (Kelly)

6) If you were in Moore’s situation, what criteria would you use to determine what was okay to publish? Would you use different criteria if you were the editor of a newspaper?

Teacher’s Guide

This case focuses on several different aspects of citizen journalism. The first is in regards to the standards that citizen journalists can be held to and the consequences that they face when these standards are not met. The second issue concerns how citizen journalism affects the mainstream media, and how the standards that the two groups are held to differ. Using questions 1, 3, and 4, you want to get the class to think about whether or not citizen journalists should be monitored, and if so, how. Should it be up to the public to monitor them? Are they capable of monitoring themselves? Should an independent organization take on this responsibility? Try to point out the difficulties with each of these scenarios. After discussing all of the potential problems with each scenario, have the students come up with which option they think is best. I also want the students to understand the potential consequences if citizen journalists have no standards governing what they can and cannot publish. Make sure that the students understand that there are not only issues regarding factuality, but also privacy.

Then, use questions 2, 5, and 6 to focus more on how citizen journalism affects the mainstream media. What are some of the ways that citizen journalism adds to the mainstream media, and what are some of the ways that it is detrimental to it? Try to get the students to realize that despite some dilemmas, there is still a huge potential for collaboration between professional reporters and citizen journalists. Also discuss the ways in which the standards for professional reporters and amateur reporters are different. Try to point the students towards the elements of journalism, specifically truth, verification, loyalty, and monitor.  How are the elements of truth, verification, and loyalty treated differently by professionals vs. their unprofessional counterparts? Also, how can professionals continue to be “watchdogs” for society when there is an increasing ability for non-professionals to uncover stories?

Works Cited

Baker, Peter, and Clifford Krauss. “President, at Service, Hails Fort Hood’s Fallen.” The New

York Times. 10 Nov 2009. Web. 25 Oct 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/&gt;.

Barry, Dan, David Barstow, Adam Liptak, Jonathan Glater, and Jacques Steinberg. “Correcting

the Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception.” The New

York Times. 11 May 2003. Web. 11 Nov 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/&gt;.

Carr, Paul. “NSFW: After Fort Hood, another example of how ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle

the truth.” TechCrunch. 07 Nov 2009. Web. 20 Oct 2010. <http://techcrunch.com/&gt;.

Charman-Anderson, Suw. “Killing Straw Men.” Strange Attractor. 08 Nov 2009. Web. 14 Oct

2010. <http://charman-anderson.com/&gt;.

Clayton, Steve. “Twitter: The New Frontline Of Journalism.” MSDN Blogs. 18 Jan 2009.

Web. 12 Nov 2010. <http://blogs.msdn.com/&gt;.

Cohen, Noam. “Refining the Twitter Explosion.” The New York Times. 08 Nov 2009. Web. 12

Nov 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com&gt;.

Garber, Megan. “Citizen Journalism vs. “Tragi-porn”.” Columbia Journalism Review (2009):

Web. 12 Oct 2010. <http://www.cjr.org/&gt;.

“Internet Usage Statistics.” Internet World Stats. 2010. Web. 22 Oct 2010.

<http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm&gt;.

Kanalley, Craig. “Fort Hood Shooting Shows How Twitter, Lists Can be Used for Breaking

News.” Poynter Online. 06 Nov 2009. Web. 12 Nov 2010. <http://www.poynter.org/&gt;.

Kelly, John. “Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold: The Rise, Challenges, and Value of Citizen

Journalism.” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (2009): 1-31. Web. 12 Nov

2010. <http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/&gt;.

Lasica, J.D. “What is Participatory Journalism?” Online Journalism Review (2003): Web. 10

Nov 2010. <http://www.ojr.org/&gt;.

McFadden, Robert. “Army Doctor Held in Ft. Hood Rampage.” The New York Times. 05

Nov 2009. Web. 15 Oct 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/&gt;.

Riley, Jack. “Tweets from inside Fort Hood.” Independent Minds. Live Journal, 06 Nov 2009.

Web. 20 Oct 2010. <http://jackriley.independentminds.livejournal.com/&gt;.

Rosenstiel, Tom, and Amy Mitchell. Thinking Clearly. New York, NY: Columbia University

Press, 2003. Print.

“The Fort Hood Tragedy Highlights the Reporting Role of Social Media.” Journalism.org: The

Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. 06 Nov 2009. Web. 12 Nov

2010. <http://www.journalism.org/&gt;.

Wingram, Mathew. “Citizen journalism: I’ll take it, flaws and all.” mathewwingram.com/work.

08 Nov 2009. Web. 14 Oct 2010. <http://www.mathewingram.com/&gt;.

Other Resources

@HuffingtonPost/fort-hood-locals. Web log post. Twitter.com. 05 Nov 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://twitter.com/huffingtonpost/fort-hood-locals>.

@dallas_news/fort-hood-updates. Web log post. Twitter.com. 05 Nov 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://twitter.com/dallas_news/fort-hood-updates>.

These resources show the original Twitter lists that the Huffington Post and the Dallas Morning News compiled during the Fort Hood shootings.

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